Category Archives: School/Work

News from my professional life

Learning Course #6: Readings from week 2 #LH2L1

The optional readings for week 1 of the Learning course* I am taking were interesting. Here is a set of quotes/highlights from them:

Robin Scott, “The 30 Second Habit That Can Have a Big Impact On Your Life,” Feb 18, 2014, The Huffington Post.  This is actually a wonderful article on chunking!

  • Immediately after every lecture, meeting, or any significant experience, take 30 seconds?–?no more, no less?–?to write down the most important points. If you always do just this, said his grandfather, and even if you only do this, with no other revision, you will be okay.
  • It’s not note taking
  • It’s hard work
  • Detail is a trap
  • You must act quickly
  • You learn to listen better, and ask better questions
  • You’re able to help others more
  • It gets easier and more valuable

Richard Wiseman, “Be lucky – it’s an easy skill to learn,” The Telegraph, Jan 9, 2003.  Yes, Lady Luck DOES favor some–and for a reason!

  • Those who think they’re unlucky should change their outlook and discover how to generate good fortune
  • Although unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their fortune.
  • Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter such opportunities, whereas unlucky people do not
  • Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected.
  • Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else
  • Lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good

The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working MemoryDavid Glenn,Divided Attention,” February 28, 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

  • Illusion of competence is one of the things that worry scholars who study attention, cognition, and the classroom
  • “Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities,” says Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. “But there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.”
  • whether attention is generated by conscious effort or is an unwilled effect of outside forces. The consensus today is that there are overlapping but neurologically distinct systems: one of controlled attention, which you use to push yourself to read another page of Faulkner, and one of stimulus-driven attention, which kicks in when someone shatters a glass behind you.
  • In a famous paper in 1956, George A. Miller suggested that humans’ working-memory capacity is limited to roughly seven units
  • Informational bottleneck has been recognized as a profound constraint on human cognition.  Two ways to manage its effects. One is to “chunk” information…The second method …is to manage attention so that unwanted stimuli do not crowd the working memory.
  • The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory
  • Variability in working-memory capacity accounts for about half the variability in novel reasoning and reading comprehension.
  • People with strong working-memory capacities don’t have a larger nightclub in their brains. They just have better bouncers working the velvet rope outside
  • Information that is encoded in declarative memory is more flexible—that is, people are more likely to be able to draw analogies and extrapolate from it.

Steve Mensing, Dunning-Kruger Effect: When Distorted Self-Perception and Illusions of Competence Trick Entertainers, Politicians, and Cities,” Nov 26, 2013, Rowan Free Press.

  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the extreme bias that some untalented and unskilled persons suffer from when they rate their ability at a much higher level than it actually is.
  • For a given skill, incompetent people will:
    • Tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
    • Tend to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
    • Fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
    • Recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.

Errol Morris, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1),” June 20, 2010, The New York Times, Opinionator.

Maria Konnikova, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades,” June 2, 2014, The New York Times.

  • Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters – but how.
  • The messiness inherent in free-form handwriting: Not only must we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline, but we are also likely to produce a result that is highly variable. That variability may itself be a learning tool.
  • Cursive writing may train self-control ability in a way that other modes of writing do not, and some researchers argue that it may even be a path to treating dyslexia

Carl Zimmer, “This is Your Brain on Writing,” June 20, 2014, The New York Times.

  • The researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, observed a broad network of regions in the brain working together as people produced their stories. But there were notable differences between the two groups of subjects. The inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch, the scientists argue, showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports.
  • When we first start learning a skill — be it playing a piano or playing basketball — we use a lot of conscious effort. With practice, those actions become more automatic. The caudate nucleus and nearby regions start to coordinate the brain’s activity as this shift happens.
  • The very nature of creativity can make it different from one person to the next, and so it can be hard to see what different writers have in common. Dr. Pinker speculated that Marcel Proust might have activated the taste-perceiving regions of his brain when he recalled the flavor of a cookie. But another writer might rely more on sounds to evoke a time and place.

Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Memories of errors foster faster learning,” August 14, 2014, Science Daily.  Yes, mistakes really do help you learn!

  • Using a deceptively simple set of experiments, researchers have learned why people learn an identical or similar task faster the second, third and subsequent time around. The reason: They are aided not only by memories of how to perform the task, but also by memories of the errors made the first time.

* This blog entry is part of my series on the “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course I am taking.

Learning Course #5: Chunking, Illusions of competence, Motivation, Library of Chunks, Overlearning #LH2L1

Here are the points I want to remember or be able to find again from the videos of the second week of the Learning course*

What is a chunk?

  • Chunking is the mental leap that helps you unite bits of information together through meaning.
  • Memorizing a fact without understanding or context doesn’t help you understand
  • When you’re focusing your attention on something it’s almost as if you have an octopus. The octopus of attention that slips it’s tentacles through those four slots of working memory
  • Focusing your attention to connect parts of the brain to tie together ideas is an important part of the focused mode of learning.
  • Chunks are pieces of information, neuroscientifically speaking, through bound together through meaning or use.
  • Your neurons fire and wire together in a shimmering mental loop cementing the relationship in your mind between the sound mama and your mother’s smiling face.
  • One of the first steps towards gaining expertise in academic topics is to create conceptual chunks, mental leaps that unite scattered bits of information through meaning.
  • Focused practice and repetition, the creation of strong memory traces, helps you to create chunks.
  • The path to expertise is built little by little, small chunks can become larger, and all of the expertise serves to underpin more creative interpretations as you gradually become a master of the material.

How to form a chunk

  • First listen or watch.
  • Getting an initial sense of the pattern you want to master for yourself is similar for most subjects or skills.
  • You grasp and master various bits and pieces of the skills you need.
  • You’re creating little neural mini chunks, that you can then gradually knit together into larger numeral chunks.
  • The best chunks are the ones that are so well ingrained, that you don’t even have to conscientiously think about
  • Chunking in the subject of history  is quite different from chunking in chemistry or in karate.
  • The first step on chunking is simply to focus your undivided attention on the information you want to chunk.
  • The second step in chunking is to understand the basic idea you’re trying to chunk
  • Can you create a chunk if you don’t understand? Yes, but it’s often a useless chunk.
  • Don’t confuse the “aha” of a breakthrough in understanding with solid expertise.
  • The third step to chunking is gaining context, so you can see not just how, but also when to use this chunk.
  • learning takes place in two ways.
  • There’s a bottom up chunking process, where practicing repetition can help you both build and strengthen each chunk, so you can easily access it whenever you need to. And there’s also a top down big picture process that allows you to see what you’re learning and where it fits in.
  • Context is where bottom up and top down learning meet.
  • Learn the major concepts or points first: the key parts of a good instructor or book chapter’s outline, flow charts, tables, or concept maps.
  • Once you have this done, fill in the details.

Illusions of competence

  • After you’ve read the material, simply look away, and see what you can recall from the material you’ve just read. In the same amount of time, by simply practising and recalling the material students learned far more and at a much deeper level than they did using any other approach.
  • The retrieval process itself enhances deep learning, and helps us to begin forming chunks.
  • If you’re trying to build connections between chunks, before the basic chunks are embedded in the brain, [concept mapping, drawing diagrams that show the relationship between the concepts] doesn’t work as well.
  • The only time rereading text seems to be effective, is if you let time pass between the rereading
  • Merely glancing at a solution and thinking you truly know it yourself is one of the most common illusions of competence in learning.
  • [Highlighting,] making lots of motions with your hand can fool you into thinking you’ve placed the concept in your brain.
  • Words or notes in a margin that synthesize key concepts are a very good idea.
  • Mistakes are very valuable to make in your little self tests before high stakes real tests.

What motivates you?

  • Acetylcholine neurons form neuromodulatory connections to the cortex that are particularly important for focused learning, leading to new long term memory.
  • Our motivation is controlled by a particular chemical substance called Dopamine. Dopamine is released from these neurons, when received an unexpected reward. This can motivate you to do something that may not be rewarding right now but will lead to a much better reward in the future.
  • It can lead to craving and dependence, which can hijack your free will and can motivate actions that are harmful to you. Loss of Dopamine neurons leads to a lack of motivation. Severe loss of Dopamine neurons causes resting tremor, slowness, rigidity, this is called Parkinson’s disease.
  • Serotonin is a third diffused neuromaginatroy system that strongly affects your social life. Prozac, which is prescribed for clinical depression, raises the level of Serotonin activity. The level of Serotonin is also closely linked to risk taking behavior. Inmates in jail for violent crimes have some of the lowest levels of serotonin activity in society.
  • Emotions were once thought to be separate from cognition but recent research has shown that emotions are intertwined with perception and attention and interact with learning and memory.
  • If you want to learn more about Acetylcholine, Dopamine, and Serotonin, look them on

The value of a library of chunks

  • What people do to enhance their knowledge and gain expertise is to gradually build the number of chunks in their mind.
  • Valuable bits of information, they can piece together in new and creative ways.
  • The bigger and more well practiced your chunked mental library, whatever the subject you’re learning, the more easily you’ll be able to solve problems and figure out solutions.
  • When you grasp one chunk, you’ll find that that chunk can be related in surprising ways to similar chunks, not only in that field, but also in very different fields. This idea is called transfer.
  • A chunk is a way of compressing information much more compactly.
  • If you have a library of concepts and solutions internalized as chunked patterns, you can think of it as a collection or a library of neural patterns.
  • In building a chunked library, you’re training your brain to recognize not only a specific concept, but different types and classes of concepts
  • Law of serendipity: Lady luck favors the one who tries. Focus on whatever section you’re studying.

Overlearning, choking, Einstellung, and interleaving

  • Once you’ve got the basic idea down during a session, continuing to hammer away at it during the same session doesn’t strengthen the kinds of long term memory connections you want to have strengthened. Focusing on one technique is a little like learning carpentry by only practicing with a hammer.
  • Repeating something you already know perfectly well is easy. It can also bring the illusion of competence.
  • You want to balance your studies by deliberately focusing on what you find more difficult. This focusing on the more difficult material is called deliberate practice.
  • Einstellung (means installation) – an idea you already have in mind or a neural pattern you’ve already developed and strengthened, may prevent a better idea or solution from being found.
  • You have to unlearn you erroneous older ideas or approaches even while you’re learning new ones.
  • The best way to learn that is by practicing jumping back and forth between problems or situations that require different techniques or strategies, this is called interleaving.
  • Although practice and repetition is important in helping build solid neural patterns to draw on, it’s interleaving that starts building flexibility and creativity.
  • When you interleave between several subjects or disciplines, you can easily, more easily make interesting new connections between chunks in the different fields, which can enhance your creativity even further.
  • Science progresses one funeral at a time, as people entrenched in the old way of looking at things die off.

Interview with Dr. Robert Bilder on creativity and problem-solving

  • Leadership is the ability to disguise panic.
  • When you experience some discomfort you’re actually accomplishing some kind of change.
  • Personality characteristics: OCEAN stands for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticisim – relate to degree of creative achievement
  • Correlation with agreeableness is negative: people who are less agreeable or more disagreeable tend to show higher creative achievement.
  • I like to go back and forth between those two kinds of approaches [verbal versus visual learning styles]

* This blog entry is part of my series on the “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course I am taking.

Learning Course #4: Assignment 1: “Reflective Essay about a Learning Challenge” #LH2L1

This assignment should be about 1 page (single-spaced) long–there are five parts:

  1. Briefly describe your current learning situation and goal (College sophomore aiming for a degree in language? High school student unsure of your future major but enjoying math and physics? Retired, in your mid-sixties and exploring the idea of learning something completely new?)
  2. Briefly describe the learning aim that is of importance to you (it may be passing a particular class, excelling in a particular degree program, or something outside school, such as mastering culinary expertise).
  3. Describe your biggest mental challenges in achieving your learning aim
  4. Outline existing research or learning techniques from this course that are relevant to your challenges.
  5. Propose how you will apply research findings or learning techniques to help you overcome your challenges.

I am working (more than) full time. As having amassed 3 BAs and an MA shows that I like studying in an institutional setting. Since my last degree most of my learning was situational.

My goal is to develop my technical skills to be able to provide what my clients need, my business skills to manage my own small business and communication skills to be more effective in my interactions with people. I also like to take course that provide me with a certificate of some sort to enhance my credibility in the field of my work.

Balancing client work, professional development, health, personal interests (writing, music) and other responsibilities (i.e. family) is the most challenging task. Within the realm of learning there are two challenges: how to keep abreast of being informed of technology that is relevant to my future work and how to become an expert in the technology that I need to use right now. The most difficult part of the latter is the large number of details and concept I have to keep in mind when learning coding or working on a project. And fighting of distractions from social media channels and the bottomless pit of the internet in general.

Three learning techniques that can be relevant to me

  1. Procrastination–the Pomodoro technique. – This technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and focusing only on the topic at hand without being distracted.
  2. Gobet, F., and G. Clarkson. “Chunks in Expert Memory: Evidence for the Magical Number Four… or Is It Two?“. Memory 12, no. 6 (2004): 732-47. – Breaking down tasks or issues to no more than four chunks and then building up to larger chunks of four or less is more effective than long lists.
  3. Bilalic, M., McLeod, P., & Gobet, F. (2008). Why good thoughts block better ones: The mechanism of the pernicious Einstellung (set) effect. Cognition, 108(3), 652-661. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.05.005 – Proven ways of solving problems may block thinking about new problems with new, fresh eyes.

I will apply the Pomodoro method (with all it steps of setting a timer, focusing and reward at end) for challenging tasks) on a daily basis. I believe that this can counteract with my issues of being easily distracted.

Instead of making long lists I will try to break down issues into four or less chunk and attack them one by one. Then I can build up a deeper understanding of the big picture.

When getting stuck in solving a problem, I will take a brief walk or exercise (which is another idea research suggested) and then attempt to solve with a fresh eye, not using a method I am too familiar with.

Learning Course #3: Readings from week 1 #LH2L1

The optional readings for week 1 of the Learning course* I am taking were interesting. Here is a set of quotes/highlights from them:

John Hamilton. (October 17, 2013). “Brains Sweep Themselves Clean of Toxins During Sleep.” NPR All Things Considered.

  • During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found….
  • The best explanation yet of why animals and people need sleep. If this proves to be true in humans as well, it could help explain a mysterious association between sleep disorders and brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s….
  • So why doesn’t the brain do this sort of housekeeping all the time? Nedergaard thinks it’s because cleaning takes a lot of energy….
  • The report also offers a tantalizing hint of a new approach to Alzheimer’s prevention, Bateman says. “It does raise the possibility that one might be able to actually control sleep in a way to improve the clearance of beta amyloid and help prevent amyloidosis that we think can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Anne Trafton. (July 21, 2014), “Try, try again? Study says no: Trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language, neuroscientists find.Science Daily.

  • Neuroscientists find that trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language. When it comes to learning languages, adults and children have different strengths.
  • Adults excel at absorbing the vocabulary needed to navigate a grocery store or order food in a restaurant, but children have an uncanny ability to pick up on subtle nuances of language, sometimes speaking a second language like a native speaker within months.
  • Brain structure plays an important role in this “sensitive period” for learning language, which is believed to end around adolescence.

Richard C. Mohs. “How Human Memory Works.” How Stuff Works.

  • Memory is located not in one particular place in the brain but is instead a brain-wide process.
  • What seems to be a single memory is actually a complex construction.
  • Encoding is the first step in creating a memory. It’s a biological phenomenon, rooted in the senses, that begins with perception. It is encoded and stored using the language of electricity and chemicals.
  • The connections between brain cells aren’t set in concrete — they change all the time.
  • To properly encode a memory, you must first be paying attention.
  • there are three ways we store memories: first in the sensory stage; then in short-term memory; and ultimately, for some memories, in long-term memory.
  • When you want to remember something, you retrieve the information on an unconscious level, bringing it into your conscious mind at will.
  • If you’ve forgotten something, it may be because you didn’t encode it very effectively, because you were distracted while encoding should have taken place, or because you’re having trouble retrieving it.
  • Age-dependent loss of [memory] function appears in many animals, and it begins with the onset of sexual maturity.
  • Studies of nursing-home populations show that patients were able to make significant improvements in memory when given rewards and challenges.

James Morehead (June 19, 2012). “Stanford University’s Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset and Education.”

  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

    Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

    In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits.

  • In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.
  • Both mindsets are widely held, are rampant in our culture.
  • Steve Job’s had a real growth mindset about himself. He was constantly experimenting, using the feedback and creating new things from it. But I don’t think he necessarily had a growth mindset about other people.
  • Praising [kids’] intelligence backfires. It puts them in a fixed mindset and not want challenges. They don’t want to risk looking stupid or risk making mistakes. Kids praised for intelligence curtail their learning in order to never make a mistake, in order to preserve the label you gave to them.
  • Students praised for the process they engaged in – their effort, their strategies, their focus, their perseverance – these kids take on hard tasks and stick with them, even if they make lots of mistakes. They learn more in the long run.
  • After a poor score on a test the students with a fixed mindset say yes, they would seriously consider cheating.
  • The way we praise, the way we talk to kids, all of these messages are conveying a value system. We have to really send the right messages, that taking on a challenging task is what I admire. Sticking to something and trying many strategies, that’s what I admire. That struggling means you’re committed to something and are willing to work hard.

Gretchen Reynolds. (April 30, 2014). Want to be More Creative? Take a Walk.The New York Times.

  • An significantly increase creativity, according to a handy new study.
  • Exercise has long been linked anecdotally to creativity.
  • Walking markedly improved people’s ability to generate creative ideas, even when they sat down after the walk.
  • When volunteers strolled Stanford’s pleasant, leafy campus for about eight minutes, they generated more creative ideas than when they sat either inside or outside for the same length of time.
  • Just how a brief, casual stroll alters the various mental processes related to creativity remains unclear.

Brigid Schulte, (May 16, 2014). “For a more productive life, daydream.” CNN Opinion.

  • Brigid Schulte Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

    Brigid Schulte Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time

    Legend has it not only that Archimedes had his “eureka!” moment about water displacement while relaxing in the tub, but that Einstein worked out the Theory of Relativity while tootling around on his bicycle.

  • Though Protestant work ethic-driven Americans have tended to worry about the devil holding sway in idle time, it turns out idle time is crucial for creativity, innovation and breakthrough thinking.
  • The default mode network is like a series of airport hubs in different and typically unconnected parts of the brain. And that’s why it’s so crucial. When the brain flips into idle mode, this network subconsciously puts together stray thoughts, makes seemingly random connections and enables us to see an old problem in an entirely new light.
  • just before that moment of insight, the brain turns inward, what they call a “brain blink,” and lights up an area believed to be linked to our ability to understand the poetry of metaphors.
  • You need this oscillation between deep study with focused attention and daydreaming.
  • Companies pressure workers to be in the office, to work all the time. But at the same time, they’re really interested in innovation, which comes from letting go.
  • Art, literature, inventions, innovation, philosophy has come as a result of a delicate balance between the uninterrupted time in leisure to daydream, to set the default mode network free, and the concentrated time at work to make those flights of whim and fancy something real.
  • Philosopher Bertrand Russell, in his famous 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” advocated a four-hour workday and more leisure time for all.
  • Our antiquated laws give no overwork protection to knowledge workers.

Sumathi Reddy, (July 21, 2014). “Why Seven Hours of Sleep Might Be Better than Eight.” The Wall Street Journal.

  • Several sleep studies have found that seven hours is the optimal amount of sleep—not eight, as was long believed—when it comes to certain cognitive and health markers, although many doctors question that conclusion.
  • Skimping on a full night’s sleep, even by 20 minutes, impairs performance and memory the next day.
  • Getting too much sleep—not just too little of it—is associated with health problems including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease and with higher rates of death, studies show.
  • People who reported they slept 6.5 to 7.4 hours had a lower mortality rate than those with shorter or longer sleep.
  • Other experts caution against studies showing ill effects from too much sleep.
  • Cognitive performance increased as people got more sleep, reaching a peak at seven hours before starting to decline.
  • People should be able to figure out their optimal amount of sleep in a trial of three days to a week, ideally while on vacation.
  • Five healthy adults were placed in what the researchers called Stone Age-like conditions in Germany for more than two months—without electricity, clocks or running water. Participants fell asleep about two hours earlier and got on average 1.5 hours more sleep than was estimated in their normal lives, the study said. Their average amount of sleep per night: 7.2 hours.

Robert Wright, (April 21, 2012). How to Break the Procrastination HabitThe Atlantic. (Charles Duhigg’s book,The Power of Habit, which is mentioned in the article, is also great!)

Daniel J. Levitin, (August 9, 2014), “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain,” The New York Times.

  • But beware the false break. Make sure you have a real one. The summer vacation is more than a quaint tradition. Along with family time, mealtime and weekends, it is an important way that we can make the most of our beautiful brains.
  • The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited.
  • Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain).
  • The daydreaming mode, marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, is responsible for our moments of greatest creativity and insight.
  • The attentional filter, helps to orient our attention, to tell us what to pay attention to and what we can safely ignore.
  • The switch between daydreaming and attention is controlled in a part of the brain called the insula, an important structure about an inch or so beneath the surface of the top of your skull. The efficacy of this switch varies from person to person, in some functioning smoothly, in others rather rusty.
  • If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.
  • Email, too, should be done at designated times.
  • Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods.
  • Daydreaming leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.
  • Taking breaks is biologically restorative. Naps are even better.

Charlie Tyson, (August 14, 2014), “Failure to Replicate,” Inside Higher Ed.  This is a very interesting overview article about the state of affairs in education research.

* This blog entry is part of my series on the “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course I am taking.

Reflective tasks for the Camera Never Lies Course: Week 1

Task 1: Review the photographs which are special to you, and consider to what extent the circumstances in which those images were taken give them importance.  Now stand back, figuratively, and consider one of these images on its merits as a photograph.  How far does that image have meaning to you because of its history, as opposed to its aesthetic as a photograph?  Many technically ‘terrible’ images are prized because they capture ‘that moment.’ 

StellaMy reply: As I rummaged through my mental drawers for images I realized that all the images that are significant to me have either me or one or more of my family members or friends on them. I was present at some of the historical events, e.g. during the fall of communism in 1989, but none of the images that I took or know of are as important for me as of the ones with my personal circles.

One image that comes to mind as significant was taken a few hours after my first child was born, see on the right. It is not a particularly sharp picture. The lights are not perfect either. The composition is OK, I think, because I cropped the image after I took it. But it captured a moment when my life changed. She, my daughter can always count on me from this point on. If she needs a finger to suck on I am there for her. Even if she doesn’t know what she needs.

Task 2: Consider memorials and images which have meaning to you from a cultural and historical perspective – buildings, murals, paintings, statues, etc.  Consider why they are important to you, and what they are evocative of: are they tapping into an older heritage of images which are important to your national, community or individual identity?

Hungarian Republic of CouncilsMy reply: This statue, based on on a poster, used to stand close to the high school I went to in Hungary. It memorialized the short lived era of the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919. I was a product of the Communist, Hungarian education system, which romanticized this era and emphasized only its positive accomplishments, while not mentioning the negatives. Hence, as I grew up, I enjoyed the dynamic nature of the poster and the statue. I remember climbing onto its knee too. Then the system fell, and the statue was moved to the outskirts of Budapest, along with other similar statues, to a “Memento Park.”

I think the question was supposed to make us think of memorials that provide a cohesive narrative for a group/nation. But with the history of Hungary it would be hard to pick one, because people remember and think of the communist era differently. My memories are mixed too. I had a happy childhood, and being around this statue was part of it. But now, as an adult, I cannot deny that both the 1919 era and the later version of communism was guilty of ruining the lives of many. Yes, this image evokes issues of identities, but these are complex ones, not possible to summarize in a short paragraph.

Boling: Guernica (2008)Task 3: I rather ducked the issue of interpreting Picasso’s Guernica … mainly because Gijs van Hensbergen does such a good job.  Please review his piece in on the BBC website and comment upon it.

My reply: Reading that article gave me context for the painting. It helped understanding the origins of the details, like where the horse or bull or head… evolved from and what they might mean. It also reminded me that art appreciation is much more than analyzing a picture (its colors, composition) on its own. Pictures always exist in a larger context and come from the personal experiences of artists. The more we know about these the more we can appreciate the nuances of possible meanings. I saw the original of this. I was impressed by its immense size as I mentioned it in my review of Dave Boling’s book Guernica.

Task 4: Review the images of advertising in Four and Six – either those in the lecture, or from the rest of the site – are you surprised that some of these have been altered for commercial purposes?

My reply: No, I was not surprised. However I never considered before that the covers of political magazines, e.g. Times, Newsweek are also part of the advertising scene. I knew and accepted the magazines directed to men or women specifically are using altered, sexy” images of their topics (scantily dressed men/women, muscle cars, weapons, tech gizmos…) But it didn’t occur to me that the covers of “serious” magazines need to play the same role: create a desire in the target audience to buy the product. One way to do that is to crate emotionally provocative images, see the Reagan with a teardrop pic.

Task 5: In viewing the photographic reportage in newspapers, magazines and news organisations pages on the web, to what degree do you take the pictures ‘on faith’ as being authentic and unaltered?  Can you think of an example where something ‘just didn’t look’ right?  Consider what this means for future researchers using this material as a resource for the writing of history in twenty, thirty or forty years hence.  This will be a theme we will return to.

My reply: I used to visit regularly sites that show “photoshop disasters”, e.g. I enjoyed the deconstructions of and snarly remarks on examples of photo manipulations that are obviously went over the top. However it got repetitive, so I rarely do now. But when you ask for an example these sites come to my mind. In current context and for educated mind it is obvious that these magazine images are altered. However it is quite possible that not everyone is aware of these, particularly in the target audience. I wonder whether 20-40 years from now ,if historians look at these pictures the digital changes will be obvious or not.

I don’t have to go that far. I remember the marches that we had to participate as kids during Communism. The official photos show smiling faces, rows of happy people after rows. Then I also remember a friend of mine who who was kicked out of high-school because he showed the finger to the tribune where the leaders of the country were standing, during one of these marches. Not all was well back then, even if the pictures you can find would suggest so.

*This blog entry is part of my series on the “The Camera Never Lies Course” course I am taking.

Camera Never Lies Course: Week 1

Below is what I took away from the video lectures of the first week of my Camera Never Lies course*. There were lots of examples of altered images, some of them I was familiar with, others not. Majority of them were taken from the fourfoursix website, which is a great resource for the topic of the course. I appreciated that the professor prepared an accompanying document, that not just set the aims, objectives and learning outcomes for the course, but also included lots of links for all the images and topics mentioned in the lectures.

Most of the  Guernica talk was about the historical context of the event and how it fit into the narrative of the two world wars. I was quite familiar with that already, so I found that section, the longest lecture of the first week, a bit boring.

I boldfaced the points I found the most interesting. All the text is taken straight from the transcription of the lectures.

Use of Images

  • We can gain a great deal, from seeing what was represented to a culture or society and how that in itself reflected on their opinions.
  • The painted portrait. Very staged…allow in an individual to make a statement…historian  interrogate that for those meaningsTiananmen Square , and to help shed some light on their status and their perspective in society.
  • about the use of photographs as historical record, is what happens the millisecond before?
  • If there are so many millions of photographs taken why have non ever shown a UFO?
  • we can also make judgments about the nature of events by the way that they are memorialized
  • Jean de la Croix – it’s painted nearly 40 years after the event and very clearly embodies the idea that everyone is involved in the revolution including this stylized view of truth and justice.
  • Tiananmen Square –  this an image of oppression, this is an image of courage and this is an image of determination, hope.


  • GuernicaThe 1997 Oxford Dictionary of the 20th century had part of the Guernica picture on its front cover.>
  • The first time that we have, intensive bombing of a purely civilian target, which was not defended.
  • It had a small ammunition’s factory
  • transition is the willingness of societies to accept the mass slaughter of civilians
  • [During WWI w]e do have bombing of London, via Zeppelins. In fact it was such a curious and unusual occurrence that various members of the London population came out and pointed upwards to the German airships raining bombs, somewhat inefficiently, down on them.
  • The reporting of what happened in Guernica was important to it’s significance overall.
  • George Steer, who is a correspondent for the, the Times of London wrote back and wrote back emotively about the aftermath. Franco’s forces actually denied that bombing had taken place.
  • [Picasso] already been commissioned to provide something for a Spanish exhibition within Paris but was profoundly effected by the reportage that he received.
  • A certain currency is given to black and white.  We’re more trusting of black and white photographs. For no really good reason, we think of them in terms of being authentic. They are reportage. Color is almost a diversion. 
  • It displays death in a way that’s not intended to be realistic in terms of reportage. [It gives] a sense of turmoil and anguish and bewilderment that stems from the event


  • Every personal computer now, has some elementary program built into it that will allow you to alter images, to one degree or another.
  • It wasn’t so long ago that National Geographic required photographers to guarantee they hadn’t used a filter on their camera before accepting photographs.
  • Most images are now captured digitally. We don’t have the artifact to the same degree that we had with the film negative
  • There are too many steps in which images can be altered or manipulated.
    What is authentic? What is the image?

The Image in Advertising

  • When it come to advertising there’s also what is acceptable, what’s not acceptable as times change. 
  • Airbrushing out the cigarette held by Paul McCartney [on the cover of Abbey Road] as they cross the zebra crossing. You get an idea of how the concerns of society have changed.
  • In  2007 Time magazine ran an article, How The Right Went Wrong. It displays fairly clearly Ronald Reagan but, digitally added was a tear across his right cheek.
  • In 2003 GQ magazine had Kate Winslet on their cover.  Kate Winslet one of the finest actresses of her generation was digitally altered to narrow her hips.

The Image in Politics

  • In April 2009, the Israeli newspaper Yated Ne’eman, took out of a collective photograph of the Israeli cabinet, the two women member’s portrait.
  • In 2010 the State Run Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, had digitally altered an image which showed President Mubarak walking with Israeli leaders, those from the US, the  Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon — mother of Queen Elizabeth II — and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie KingPalestine and, and Jordan. [They moved] Mubarak so that he was at the head of Posse, rather walking behind them.
  • 1939. Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, standing next to the queen mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. The king, George VI, had been removed from the image.  It was an image which was used for publicity of Mackenzie King’s re-election campaign. And it was felt that his stature, both physically and figuratively, was going to be enhanced by standing next to the Queen, rather than the Queen and her husband.


  • 2003, we have a photograph from Basra. It’s a composite photograph. It may have improved the composition. But did nothing for his professional career.
  • 2011…football match in Spain. By removing the player, it appeared that, no offside had taken place. …someone thought it was important to play to their particular audience at the time.
  • 2006..Israeli air attack on Lebanon. Black smoke had been added.

*This blog entry is part of my series on the “The Camera Never Lies Course” course I am taking.

New Course: The Camera Never Lies – Intro

I am “taking” a University of London course at Coursera, titled “The Camera Never Lies”. Just like with the other course, I will probably not get the verified certificate for $49, but will listen to all the lectures, do all the assignments and participate in the online discussions. Here is the information about it form the course’s public page:

About the Course

This short history course is an introduction to use of images and other media as historical evidence in the twentieth century, issues of authenticity and manipulation, and the place of film and historical adoptions as public history.

Cover for Mary Warner Marien: Photography: A Cultural History, 4th Edn. 2014.Course Syllabus

Week 1: The Camera Never Lies – Introduction
Week 2: Images and History in the Twentieth Century
Week 3: The Air-Brushing of History: Stalin and Falsification
Week 4: Photojournalism, Authenticity and Matters of Public Acceptability – The Battle of Mogadishu
Week 5: The Power of the Image – Mount Suribachi, 1945
Week 6: From Page to Screen – Film as Public History

Suggested Readings

To give a background perspective to the course, participants may wish to consult:
Mary Warner Marien: Photography: A Cultural History, 4th Edn. 2014.

Learning Course #2: learning, procrastination, practice, memory, sleep’s role #LH2L1

Here are the points I want to remember or be able to find again from the videos of the first week of the Learning course* (with some commentary)

What is learning?

  • The brain is the most complex device in the known universe.
  • Computers are better at chess. but what we do so well and take for granted, like seeing, hearing, reaching, running, are all much more complex problems than we thought.
  • We’re only aware of a very small fraction of all the activity in the brain
  • Areas that are most active in the resting state are called the default mode network.
  • The default mode network is a leading candidate for what we call the focus mode.
  • There are a million, billion synapses in your brain.
  • one dendritic branch Brain connectivity is dynamic and remains so even after it matures.
  • He showed a picture of one dendritic branch on a neuron which receives inputs from other neurons. (That was cool, click to enlarge)
  • Synapses are less than a micron in diameter. A human hair is around 20 microns.
  • You are not the same person you were after an night sleep or even a nap.

A procrastination preview

  • When you look at something that you really rather not do, it seems that you activate the areas of your brain associated with pain. But not long after people might start actually working out what they didn’t like, that neurodiscomfort disappeared.
  • Pomodoro technique, invented by Francesco Cirillo, in the early 1980’s.
    • Set a timer to 25 minutes
    • Turn off all interruptions,
    • Focus.
    • Give yourself a little reward

Practice makes permanent

  • For mathematical ideas, there’s often no analogous thing that you can point to. (not tangible, like an object
  • No emotion either for them, like abstract concepts of love, zest, or hope
  • This means it’s important to practice with ideas and concepts your learning in math and science, just like anything else your learning.  to help enhance and strengthen the neural connection your making during the learning process. The more abstract something is, the more important it is to practice in order to bring those ideas into reality for you. 
  • When you first begin to understand something, how to solve a problem, the neural pattern from is there, but very weak.
  • if you learn by cramming, your knowledge base will look like all in a jumble with everything confused, a poor foundation.

Introduction to memory

  • Long term memory is like a warehouse, distributed over a big area of the brain; it’s where you store fundamental concepts and techniques
  • Working (short term) memory is like a not very good blackboard
  • Researchers used to think that our working memory could hold around seven items or chunks, but now it’s widely believed that the working memory is holds only about four chunks of information.
  • We tend to automatically group memory items in to chunks so it seems our working memory is bigger than it actually is.
  • Repetition’s needed so that you’re metabolic vampires, that is natural dissipating processes, don’t suck those memories away.
  • Spaced repetition technique: If you try to glue things into your memory by repeating something 20 times in one evening, for example, it won’t stick nearly as well as if you practice it the same number of times over several days. 

The importance of sleep in learning

  • Being awake creates toxic products in the brain.
  • When you sleep, brain cells shrink.  This causes an increase in the space between your brain cells. Fluid can flow past these cells and wash the toxins out.
  • During sleep your brain tidies up ideas and concepts your thinking about and learning.
  • It erases the less important parts of memories and simultaneously strengthens areas that you need or want to remember.
  • During sleep your brain also rehearses some of the tougher parts of whatever you’re trying to learn.
  • The complete deactivation of the conscious you in the pre-frontal cortex at the forefront of your brain helps other areas of your brain start talking more easily to one another.
  • If you’re going over what you’re learning right before you take a nap or going to sleep for the evening you have an increased chance of dreaming about it.

Interview with Dr. Terrence Sejnowski

  • How do you keep yourself paying attention, during something like a boring lecture
  • There isn’t, a simple way to keep yourself attending something that you’re not interested in. But by asking a question. from the speaker the interruption often, gives rise to a discussion that is a lot more interesting. … You learn more by active engagement rather than passive listening.
  • What do you do to get into and take advantage of diffuse mode thinking?
  • Getting exercise, that it’s a wonderful way to get the mind disengaged, from the normal train of thought.
  • Do you do two things at the same time ever?
  • Multitasking is being able to switch back and forth, context switching from one topic to another.
  • How do you apply your knowledge of neuroscience, to your own learning? 
  • Rusty Gage discovered that all the neurons that you have in your brain you had a birth. In the Hippocampus new neurons are being born, even in your adulthood. This is very important for learning and memory. You really want to be surrounded by other people who are stimulating you.  In the absence of the this kind of environment exercise will also increase the number of new neurons that are being born and survive. 
  • How about test taking? Any special advice there?
  • Don’t get hung up if you cannot answer a question. Go on to the next.
  • If you had any advice for a young high school or college student, about how to learn effectively, what would you say?
  • A lot of success in life is that passion and persistence, of really staying the course, staying working on it, and, not letting go.

* This blog entry is part of my series on the “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course I am taking.

Discovering Francis Crick

Today I encountered a name I never heard of before (but should have) and as I pay attention to coincidences I had to look him up.  First , as part of my class on learning, I watched an interview with Terrence Sejnowski. He said

I’d like to introduce you to Francis Crick’s brain [pointing to a model brain on his desk]. So, I first met Francis 30 years ago, and this brain was sitting in his office. And, Francis was a close colleague of, I, moved here about 25 years ago, and got to know Francis much much better. And one day, we were chatting, and Francis pointed out this brain that had been sitting there for decades and said Terry do you know that I just recently realized that this brain is much bigger than a real brain. And in fact you could not fit this brain in my skull if you actually look at the relative sizes. It’s, it’s, this is a teaching tool for medical students. You know, you could take apart the different parts of the brain. But it’s interesting that Francis Crick didn’t realize that until much, much later, when he actually looked at it with new eyes. And so, you know, this is something about. Learning with fresh new eyes.

Some time later I happened to watch David Chalmers’ TED video on How do you explain consciousness? He said

Now, about 20 years ago, all that [the view that a science of consciousness is impossible] began to change. Neuroscientists like Francis Crick and physicists like Roger Penrose said now is the time for science to attack consciousness. And since then, there’s been a real explosion, a flowering of scientific work on consciousness. And this work has been wonderful.

So who is Francis Crick? The intro of his wikipedia page says:

Francis Harry Compton Crick, OM, FRS (8 June 1916 – 28 July 2004) was an English molecular biologist, biophysicist, and neuroscientist, most noted for being a co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 with James Watson. He, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins were jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material”.

For me his most interesting sounding book is

Cover for The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The SoulThe Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search For The Soul
Traditionally, the human soul is regarded as a nonphysical concept that can only be examined by psychiatrists and theologists. In his new book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, Nobel Laureate Francis Crick boldly straddles the line between science and spirituality by examining the soul from the standpoint of a modern scientist, basing the soul’s existence and function on an in-depth examination of how the human brain “sees.”

Learning Course #1: Focused versus Diffuse Thinking #LH2L1

This is my blog, so I will only write up information from the Learning Course that I found useful and/or was new for me. E.g. “learning takes time” didn’t make the cut from the first video I watched for the course. Only these did:

  • Diffused mode of thinking, a more relaxed thinking style than focused is related to a set of neural resting states.
  • You can look at things broadly from a very different, big-picture perspective. You can make new neural connections traveling along new pathways. You can’t focus in as tightly as you often need to, to finalize any kind of problem solving.
  • As far as neuroscientists know right now, you’re either in the focused mode or the diffused mode of thinking.
  • Analogies provide powerful techniques for learning.
  • The brain needs to alternate its ways of learning between focused and diffused mode as it grapples with and assimilates the new material. (Dali had a key dropping from his pocket to focus him from relaxed mode. Edison had a loud ball for the same effect.)

* This blog entry is part of my series on the “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” course I am taking.